James Lawton: Ruthless display from a champion in the making
Friday 26 June 2009
For anyone here with serious intentions there is one clear priority, apart from making victory look like the last word in formality. It is also valuable to look like a champion, to shake down the sneers of those who say you are good but maybe not good enough.
Andrew Murray may have felt the need to reach out for these priorities after his uncomfortable arrival on the Centre Court on Tuesday, when a 29-year-old Californian who wasn't going anywhere disguised the fact sufficiently for a while to produce some embarrassing moments. Last night Murray wasn't having any of this. He wanted to be not only a winner but a champion-elect and there were moments when he played the part to absolute perfection, most dramatically when he rounded off a first set performance which left his waspish Latvian opponent Ernests Gulbis feeling as though he had wandered dangerously out of his class.
Gulbis, ranked 74 in the world, is in fact a more than useful performer on his best days and back home they insist that he might be operating around the top of the tennis league if he hadn't been born with a whole drawer-full of silver cutlery jammed in his mouth. Opponents were once alerted to a privileged presence in the locker room when he strolled in straight from his father's private jet. However, all the money in the world cannot buy quite the level of God- given gifts that Murray put on show when he produced an opening crescendo of rising and unanswerable force.
The first set came, 6-2, with finishing strokes which said that here indeed was a contender for the highest prizes of the game, one who would not look out of place in a Wimbledon final against Federer, the genius he has beaten six times in disputes waged below the peaks of the game but who was more or less untouchable in the US Open final last year.
Murray wasn't playing Federer last night but nor was he up against a man of anything like negligible ability. Indeed, most judges say the problem for this 20-year-old has been attitude – and maybe a little too much privilege – rather than any shortfall in natural ability. It was, however, all a matter for the margins when Murray unleashed the moves that threatened to shatter the Latvian before he got any kind of foothold.
First came a running forehand which Federer would happily have authored. Then, on the penultimate point of that first set of absolute authority, Murray produced a drop shot of stunning control. He stood to watch its effect, waited for both the crowd and Gulbis to get their breath back, and then strolled back to his serving mark with the understated arrogance of a matador who knew he had just made arguably the perfect kill. He was now required, only for theatrical purposes, to produce a serve of some authority. What he did was produce an ace of such speed and placement that it is questionable if Gulbis managed to move a muscle.
This masterclass in how to take away all the ground of your opponent lasted just 25 minutes and it said much for the man from the Baltic that he didn't sue for peace at precisely the moment that last service thudded into the backcourt. Then, you wouldn't have backed him in a pick-up game back home in a Riga park, so undermined had he been by the brilliant play and the brimming confidence of his opponent. Yet that would have been something of a miscalculation. Gulbis had a lot more left than anyone could have imagined and, though Murray was not inclined to temper his aggression, now he could no longer lay down quite so many easy punches – or rapier thrusts. The Gulbis resistance was so stoic the second set stretched out to 12 games, but its outcome was never in doubt.
It was pretty much the same in the third, Murray dominant and Gulbis producing the odd gesture of defiance. It was, in fact, a small sub-plot in the broader story of Murray's strikingly improved confidence from the uneasy moments against Robert Kendrick 48 hours earlier.
Then, Murray looked as though he been made uncomfortable by the growing assumption that he was destined to become the first British male to win here since Fred Perry did it 73 years ago.
Last night he simply luxuriated in the theory. There were moments when he preened, as all champions must, and there was scarcely a turn of the action when he seemed unsure about what to do. There was even a surfacing of some of the emotion that Murray, in his search for competitive maturity, has recently been working so hard, and successfully, to subdue. Now it came most noticeably at moments of technical and artistic triumph and at the end of the match he wasn't coy about the fact that he felt he had made a major move forward.
"This was a lot, lot better than the first game and I'm very happy with the way I played. The crowd support was great," Murray said.
It was indeed, much warmer than that which came when he had his false steps against Kendrick, and there was a simple reason for this. Not only did Murray play, in the words of John McEnroe, a "hell of a game". Not only did he produce shots of the very highest quality. He also fulfilled that urgent requirement to look like a champion. Now, Federer had better begin to feel the heat.
Murray v Gulbis: Story of the match
First Serve percentage: 52 of 71 (73%)/64 of 92 (70%)
Double Faults: 1/2
Unforced Errors: 5/24
Winning percentage on first serve: 46 of 52 (88%)/44 of 64 (69%)
Winning percentage on second serve: 13 of 19 (68%)/10 of 28 (36%)
Receiving points won: 38 of 92 (41%)/12 of 71 (17%)
Break point conversions: 5 of 7 (71%)/0 of 2 (0%)
Net approaches: 9 of 11 (82%)/20 of 39 (51%)
Total points won: 97/66
Fastest serve speed: 132 mph/134 mph
Average first serve spee: 119 mph/123 mph
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